Things aren’t looking good for Berry Barry.
We all know that perspective accounts for a great deal of how we interpret and interact with the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constantly surprising just how dynamic a force it is. The way a person’s frame of reference affects his or her experience is so powerful that it has the potential to change the shape of nearly any encounter. I think of it through metaphor, as if each circumstance or situation presents as a gift-wrapped package, and what’s inside depends on the very particular way each person has in peeling back the paper, pulling off the bow. One person’s individuated method might yield the sweetness of a delicate flower just about to bloom while another could uncover a spiky barb of a plant designed for defense instead of propagation, each growing from boxes that appear identical to the eye if not to the consciousness (or unconsciousness, as the case may be).
An obvious manifestation of this is the age-old child vs. adult paradigm shift, and a recent example made me catch my breath. A couple of weeks ago, the news broke that there was hope for a vaccine to be available for kids in the 2-11 age bracket, into which all three of my children fall, beginning in September. The day this information hit the mainstream was a Tuesday, and I mentioned it casually on the drive home from school after picking them up, not realizing that I had just uncorked a bottle of such effervescence that it would continue to erupt in a gushing geyser for the rest of the day.
Arlo: “Mommy, Mommy, I KNOW! Ms. Ashley told us! And Tripp and I are going to have a sleepover in September after we get our shots! I can’t wait to get my shot! We’re going to have the sleepover at his house, or maybe at our house, or his house first and then our house. I’m so excited about our playdate!”
It went on from there and continued for the rest of our drive. After we arrived home, every few minutes his excitement, borne on wings of hope and buoyed by the slipstream of long-term promise, welled up in his mind and he couldn’t contain it. “Mommy! I’m so excited!” was the refrain that soundtracked our entire afternoon and evening, a broken record stuck on the crescendo of a triumphant chorus line. He was positively energized to the point that even the motions of his body were kinetically charged. I know I’m imagining this, but it seemed like every atom of his being was operating on a vibrational uptick, as if all of the dials controlling his every frequency had been twisted to their highest setting. No amount of caveats or “maybes” on my part could dampen this trajectory; the animated ballistics of his energy had been deployed without a deceleration option. Up until the minute that his body finally got the better of his mind and plunged him into sleep, the boy was alight with the idea of this playdate he’d wanted to have for eighteen months (that’s one full quarter of his entire life, and more like almost half his life as his young memory can serve). His final words to me, as I lay next to him while we listened to his bedtime song, were, “Do you think Tripp has a bedtime story? I know we have a bedtime song, but if he has a bedtime story instead of a song, we should do that so he feels more comfortable.”
Of course I’m excited about the idea of my kids having access to a pediatric version of the vaccine. Of course I want that layer of protection so we can add three more warm bodies into the herd that marches us closer to immunity. Of course I want to shed the way of life sparking with worry at every turn, the belabored decisions and complicated problem-solving that has exhausted us for one entire calendar and onto the next. Of course I want to be able to do so many things we haven’t done in a year, two years, what will be three years or more for some of those experiences. Does this news also ferry in its own regatta of new concerns and anxiety-triggers? Does it bring up memories of things I have absolutely enjoyed NOT doing for these however-many years and the anticipation of not wanting to do them again? Does it make me prematurely nostalgic for the pared-down lifestyle we’ve been living, despite the implicit challenges it has entailed? Does this upheaval feel similarly momentous to the upheaval we felt when our lives foundered on the craggy cliffs of Covid’s early days, when our rudders were wrested from our control completely and almost overnight? Do those feelings of helplessness and overpowering uncertainty come screaming back into the psyche? Of course, of course, of course.
But not so for the youngest, for whom all of the unanticipated positives we’ve enjoyed these many months are unrealized. It’s not that these kids haven’t appreciated all of the benefits we’ve discovered; it’s just that their perspective can’t recognize them in the same proportions that we can. For kids like Arlo, it’s been a long haul, and his super-social soul has had to actively resist the state of atrophy a pandemic attempts to confer. In some ways, it’s like’s he’s been sitting alone on one side of a seesaw all this time, waiting for a vaccine to tip the scales. For him, this feels like a golden ticket, free from all of the baggage we adults schlep from one phase of life into another. When I considered the experience of this as it must be for him, it felt overwhelming: here was a child who sees only positives about the potential of going back to the ways we used to do things. Here was a person who sees zero downsides or concerns about returning to the old ways. Here was someone so utterly unfettered by the kind of trepidation, ambivalence, and convoluted logistical machinations juggling around in our adult minds that his feelings about this news bore a simplicity, a purity, a single note: one clear tone. It’s as if, in this case, we adults hear the world say, “Well, I have good news and bad news,” but all this little boy can hear is the clarion call of happy tidings. Ah, my child, to see through your eyes! To unwrap that gift in only the way you can, to find inside only a rosebud and none of its thorns! Here is a vase for you, and some water, to preserve this blossom for as long as we can.
One night Liam described to me a game he’d invented, which was basically three-person tag with walkie talkies wherein one person is chasing the other two who are colluding on evasion strategy by radio communication. It sounded like the kind of engagement that holds the potential for fun but also promises the likelihood of dissension, particularly when the age spread of the players ranges from five to ten years old, so my spider sense was immediately piqued.
The next day, after they’d juiced up the walkies with fresh AAAs in preparation for the game, I proffered a caveat to the older two (who are the same height and run at roughly the same speed) that they might need to alter their approach when their little brother is the chaser since it’s no fun to feel like you can’t keep up. I explained the concept of the golf handicap and the rationale behind it and hoped for the best as they darted out the door. Not two minutes later, Arlo (who’s half the age of his brother for this one and only year of their lives) barreled back through the door and stomped to the stairs, declaring, “I hate this game! This is the worst game in the world!” I’d seen this coming and so had my response cued and ready: “Arlo, I don’t like it when you say things like that. The word ‘hate’ certainly isn’t the word you’re really looking for. Can you think of another way to describe how you’re feeling?”
He sat there, arms crossed, brows furrowed, lips pursed, for another minute and then picked up his walkie talkie and pushed to talk. “Liam and Summerly, I don’t like the way this game is going at all. You guys are running too fast for me! Over.”
Liam, still outside, came on the line with “Ok, Arlo. What if we try it where we only run part of the time, like when you get too close? Over.”
Arlo: “No, you’re too fast and that’s still too hard. I can’t catch you when you’re running! Over.”
Summerly’s voice patched in, “I know, I know! When it’s Arlo’s turn to chase, we can do speed walking. Over.”
Liam, “Yeah, and when we’re chasing him, we can speed walk then, too. Over.”
Arlo, “Ok, guys, thanks. I’m coming! Over.”
And just like that he barreled back into the great outdoors to join his brother and sister. The thing about walkie-talkies is that, as long as everyone is on the same radio channel, multiple people can tune in but only one radio on the signal can transmit at a time. This way, no one can interrupt each other. The next time I’m looking for alternative conflict resolution strategies, I might just give each child a handheld transceiver and send them all into separate rooms. Heck, I might even try this technique during mealtime someday soon. Just think: only one voice would be heard at any given moment! Everyone would contribute speech much more selectively and intentionally! No one would have to ask anyone else to stop humming the same bar of “Hedwig’s Theme” while others try to talk! They might even remember to swallow before speaking! And everyone will know when another person is finished making a point because of the verbal full stop to signify that one’s contribution to the conversation has concluded. Over.
Anyone who has children or has worked with children can attest that sometimes it’s bewildering how much guidance they require as they navigate each life experience. Despite being intelligent, sentient, instinctive individuals, they also do things that you’d never expect, demonstrating that often what you think they’ll find obvious or intuitive is actually a far cry from their cognizance. A recent example of this occurred last weekend when the kids had asked to make s’mores. They got set up to roast marshmallows over candle flames (I didn’t have it in me to muster up a bonfire) and I spouted off the usual caveats: please do not move the candlesticks, if the marshmallow catches on fire please blow it out away from the candle so you don’t blow out the candle too, don’t hold it so close to the flame that you extinguish it or get wax on the marshmallow, etc. What I didn’t think to include in that etcetera was this: don’t touch the marshmallow with any part of your body after it’s been on fire until it cools down for a few seconds. The omission of that admonition resulted in this:
That lip burn was actually a lot worse than it looks in the photo, which I took the next morning at breakfast, and it was actually kind of a gruesome scene there for a bit, with molten sugar and blistered skin and tears and blood and horrified siblings. Anyway, he rebounded with characteristic grit and figured out how to hold an ice pack inside his mask while he played outside, proclaiming a self-diagnosis of “better” by nightfall.
Sure, there’s value sometimes in “figuring it out on their own” and “learning the hard way” and “not making the same mistake twice” and the school-of-hard-knocks motto of “live and learn”, but it’s also nice to avoid minor traumas if only for the sake of convenience (after spending a good fifteen minutes helping him deal with the injury and getting back on track, I then had to rethink the menu for dinner because the salt and acid involved in spaghetti sauce no long seemed like a good idea).
The moral of the story is this: if you ever wonder, “Do they really need to be told that?” the answer most of the time is “yes”, unless you want to invite s’more drama into your day.
It’s been a big week for our pet bunny. Yesterday was Cecil’s first birthday, meaning that he’s been with our family for ten months since the day the kids and I drove out to collect him from the family who’d cared for the litter during those first eight weeks. After acquiring a second guinea pig as company for the one who’d ended up here, we were glad to see that they were even happier together than we’d expected, and the manifestation of this desired result (which includes assuaging our guilt at not spending more time than we did with the one we had) caused us to consider adding another long-eared friend to our warren. To prevent them from breeding like, well, rabbits, we took Cecil to a new vet for a pre-neutering exam because the vet we’d taken him to see for his initial pre-surgical checkup had ceased seeing small animals about twelve minutes after I paid for his first visit and drove out of the parking lot. As I was preparing the travel cage on Tuesday morning ahead of the trip to the new vet, Summerly asked, “Is Cecil getting tutored today?” I told her, “No, this is just a checkup before the, uh, surgery,” not finding it in my heart to correct her adorable word confusion.
This new vet was thirty minutes away, and I was grumpy about having to devote a large portion of my day to driving an animal around for a checkup I’d already done. As it turned out, however, it was an exciting day over there; Cecil was the second of three rabbits in a row to head back to see the doctor, and the vet tech was delighted to have the rare occurrence of three rabbit visits in rapid succession. After she’d taken him inside, I sat in my car until the vet called. “Hi!” she said. “This is Dr. Raab. We’re just having the best time with Cecil back here! We’re going to do a blood draw on Cecil so we can look at the results before scheduling Cecil’s procedure. So the first thing we’re noticing about Cecil is that Cecil is actually…a little girl!” (Props to her for favoring the proper noun antecedent to avoid personal pronoun confusion.)
Well, color me every shade of surprised. I mean, this is the kind of thing you see in a sitcom, right? I’d written a version of this scenario into the young adult novel I finished a couple of summers ago, which tells you something about truth being stranger, or at least as strange as, fiction. I was immediately reminded of the moment in each of my pregnancies when the ultrasound technician identified the gender of my unborn baby (except for Arlo…I diagnosed his maleness myself because that image on the screen left nothing to the imagination). But this gender reveal surprise party took things to the next level; we’d been certain for almost a full year that this leporine family member was the little boy bunny we’d hand-picked and brought home, only to discover that we’d been hoodwinked by happenstance. It was particularly astonishing considering that this animal had already been to a vet, who I guess hadn’t thought to take a quick gander under the tail. I guess there was a good reason the practice had decided small animals were beyond their bailiwick.
We are all still adjusting to this brand new rebranding of Cecil into Cecille*, and it will probably take us months to get used to referring to our pet as a “she”. It certainly does bring up a whole host of gender-identity topics for discussion, so we’ll pick away at those over time, beginning with the first observation from Liam: “But he–I mean she–looks like a boy!” to which I responded, “Because that’s how you’ve seen him–I mean her. Says something about the brain, right? Like when it thinks something is true or real, even when it isn’t, that changes our perception of it, and our impression of its appearance is influenced by those assumptions. It’s a lot to think about, right?!” It really is. There’s so much to unpack from this experience that we have yet to discuss.
There was one easy answer to a question that afternoon, though. When Summerly asked, “So is Cecille still going to get tutored?” I was able to answer without a shred of guile or irony, “No, honey, she won’t. Since Cecille’s a girl, she’s going to be spayed.”
*The pronunciation of her name will not change. “Cecille” sounds identical to “Cecil” (as in “Sea-sill”); the newly altered spelling is more a nod to this experience than it is a comment on the compulsion to feminize a moniker according to any traditional classification determined by anatomical composition.
One afternoon early this spring, Arlo effervesced into the car at pickup, delighted with the news that his friend Tripp had invited him over for a playdate after school. “He says I’m coming over to his house today!” Arlo reported excitedly, and I had to break the news that this plan was not, in fact, one that had been discussed between any adults so it wouldn’t be put into effect. I added that I could email his parents to see if we could find a safe way to get together outside on a nice day, and he adjusted to the disappointment (it helped that I had chocolate chip cookies riding shotgun) without much more discussion.
A couple of days later on the ride home, Liam, who is in the same grade as Tripp’s older sister, Haven, had some more to say on the subject of the Kindergarten boys’ concocted afternoon playdate earlier that week.
Liam: “So Haven said that Tripp really thought Arlo was coming over the other day. She told me that he kept saying, ‘Arlo will be here any minute,’ even though she told him she didn’t think that was happening. So I said maybe they could get together over spring break, but Haven said they will be out of town that week. She thought the weekend after might be good. I told her it might work if the weather is nice enough to be outside, so we decided to watch the forecast next week and plan from there.”
If successful parenting involves transitioning the agency over day-to-day managerial responsibilities from one generation to the next, effectively rendering us the guarantors of our own obsolescence, then I think Haven’s mom and I just hit a milestone. Or maybe this is simply a case of two fourth graders wanting a break from the attentions of their little brothers. Either way, if this is the kind of water cooler conversation that’s taking place at school (minus the water cooler because…Covid), I’ll take it.
For anyone who hasn’t had the distinct experience of managing remote learning for an elementary school-aged child, here I shall transcribe a video post my second-grader recorded and uploaded to Seesaw, the app my kids’ school uses as a platform for them to post their work. This video she took of herself is a response to a reflection question, I assume, relating to some content her teacher had provided. She was working in her room for the most part that day while I navigated her brother’s Kindergarten online learning requirements, so I have no context in which to couch this most enigmatic narrative. The video, which is fifty-two seconds long, was shot from her iPad ostensibly positioned on her pillow, as evidenced by the roughly forty-five degree upward angle on her face. The camera is pointing basically directly up her nose with a mighty nice view of the ceiling for a backdrop. I wish I could convey her tone and inflection here for full effect, but the transcript does a pretty good job of summing up the particular disconnect implicit in the practice of remote learning.
“Well. I would have given them advice to, like…I don’t know, not steal and maybe not go to that country and bring lots and lots more food…and, like…in a big boat going that far, I would not have done that, going that far…probably bring more water…don’t drink that river, eucchhh, that’s disgusting…don’t eat the dead…if you do die or get sick or something, you should bring, like…stuff that you have to help…bring more stuff to help. I hope you learned stuff from that video and I hope you learned stuff from me. Bye.”
I did learn stuff from that video. Here I was thinking that teachers should be paid about six times more than they currently earn, but now I know that their salaries should be, like…twelve times higher. Also, river water and “the dead” are officially off the menu.
Don’t worry; the kitchen sink isn’t the only one practicing self-care over here! It’s a priority for me, too, and I’ve discovered a simple way to upgrade my routine that I’m excited to share. Here it is:
Yes, friends, that is indeed a giant piece of bubble wrap on my kitchen floor. I strategically placed it right between the kitchen island and the sink/dishwasher/oven because this is my center of operations for hours every day. This is the space in which I conduct the orchestra of breakfast and direct the dinnertime chorus, where the lunch box dispensary is located, where the dry ingredients are added to the wet ingredients and where the hardware of our days is handled. This is the hydraulic hub of our home, the helm at which I captain the kitchen, the holding ground where the anchor keeps us tethered. They say that the hearth is the heart of the home, and that may have been true in the days when the cookpot was one of the literal irons in the fire, but in contemporary times I think that this swath of floorboards between the counter and the appliances we use to get us fed is where the aorta of this house beats true.
Since the roughly 4 x 10 area is privy to the majority of my footfalls on a daily basis, one day on a whim I laid out this piece of plastic with its iconic blisters of air, and it changed the game entirely. How about a foot arch massage while you prepare three different meals at once? Why, sure! Want a tension tamer while you put away seventeen plates and two dozen pieces of Tupperware? Absolutely. What about a satisfying series of pleasant popping sounds to punctuate the minutes spent mentally calculating how to fit the food pyramid into a rectangular bento box? Don’t mind if I do. Care for a fun physical outlet that doesn’t interfere with productivity? Yes, please! Interested in a useful way to repurpose the packaging that came wrapped around the gallon of school glue that came in the mail so that the kids could make slime every day for a month? Why not!
Rubik’s Cubes, thank you for your contribution to society. Stress balls, we appreciate your service. Sensory dough, it’s time to step down. Fidget spinners, you had your moment. Bubble wrap on the kitchen floor takes the cake while you make the cake, put the cake in the oven, ice and decorate and slice and serve the cake then wash the cake pan and cake plates. Oh, and the silverware too. Bonus: when the bubble wrap gives up the ghost, you can roll it up and dispose of it along with any cake crumbs that might have fallen from the counter, which is perfect because the broom is long overdue for a holiday.
During the week of Mardi Gras, the kids went to play at our pod fremily’s (portmanteau alert: “friends” plus “family” equals “fremily”) house and were treated to their first-ever slices of King Cake. Our fremily had purchased the cake from a local café+bakery owned and operated by a married couple I don’t know personally but respect a great deal (and who have two adorable daughters for whom the shop is named), and Arlo was absolutely smitten. He talked about the cake for days and days, declaring that it’s his choice for his birthday when he turns six in June. Ok, I thought. I’ll figure that out when the time comes, but he’ll most likely change his mind before then.
He most certainly did not. No baked good under the sun could hold a torch to that King Cake. I knew that anything I could drum up in my kitchen would pale in comparison to the local shop’s professional product, so as the weeks drew closer to June, I decided to give them a call to see about the possibility of ordering a replica of the one in Arlo’s mind, its sweetness distilled by memory. The man named Jason who answered the phone informed me that the cake had only been available the week of Mardi Gras, but he would check to see if a special order might be possible. He called back two hours later and apologized for the delay (it didn’t feel like a delay to me), saying that he’d checked with Patrick (one of the owners) and, unfortunately, it just wouldn’t be sustainable for them to make just one of these cakes for a single occasion. Here’s how the end of the conversation went:
Jason: “I’m sorry we couldn’t make this work for you.”
Alison: “Oh, that’s ok; I totally understand! I just had to ask because I know yours would be far superior to mine. Thank you so much for checking, anyway! I know better than to ask for the recipe, but please tell Patrick that he has a big fan in my son, and—“
Jason: “Do you have an email address?”
Alison: “Um, yeah.” (I dictated it to him.)
Jason: “I’ll get you that recipe.”
Alison: “What? Are you serious?”
Jason: “I’ll get you that recipe.”
I had no idea how this person was going to whip that rabbit out of a hat (sorcery? subterfuge? illicit cookbook larceny? ), nor could I fathom WHY he was proposing to do it for a perfect stranger, and I was shocked that he’d even suggest the possibility. Less than 24 hours later, I received an email from him saying that he didn’t have the recipe yet because Patrick was converting it from large-batch format into single bake proportions, but he wanted me to know that he hadn’t forgotten his promise. I was overwhelmed by this gracious gesture while feeling further perplexed as to why they would go to all this trouble for me. Who was I? Not a family member or a recognizable regular or a VIP or someone who had some kind of advancement or honor to offer. Then I looked at his full name in the email signature and realized that this Jason was THE Jason, the other business owner, Patrick’s husband, parent of those two little girls. Something clicked, then, and I realized this email wasn’t from the guy answering the phone at the bakery. It wasn’t even from a business owner taking down a customer request. It was from a father. Here was a man who heard a woman on the phone making a special request for her child’s birthday, and he didn’t even let her finish her sentence before making up his mind that he would grant her this gift, except it wasn’t a man on the phone with a woman anymore; it was a parent on the phone with another parent.
The next day I got an email from Patrick, pastry master himself, with a personal note and the recipe written out in full detail, including a list of “equipment needed” and special instructions for every step. And this isn’t your simple “whip it right up” situation; Patrick’s King Cake is a two-day process involving fifteen ingredients and a dough hook and pounding butter and two proofings and a ruler. It has a filling and an icing and requires folding and twisting. The words “rectangle” and “cylinder” and “circle” feature in the creation of this cake’s geometry, and the ingredient measurements are all listed in grams. This is a megalithic, philharmonic kind of bake. The kind of bake you practice a few times before expecting anything resembling success. It must have taken Patrick at least an hour just to reconfigure and transcribe the recipe.
His email ended with “Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions,” and I continue to be dumbstruck by the generosity of these two men, these two entrepreneurs, these two fathers. This isn’t just good business or customer service or a graceful response to community outreach. This is hospitality in the old-fashioned sense, the Greek sense, where the word “stranger” and “guest” are interchangeable concepts, where a bedraggled seafarer washed up on shore could easily be a deity in disguise. This is heartfelt goodness simply for the sake of giving a parent the gift of being able to give to her child, to make manifest that child’s hope. Not a greedy hope, but a pure hope that comes from loving something and wanting it a whole lot. Hope is a lot like love that way: it’s so powerful partly because it implies the potential for disappointment, which isn’t really so different from heartbreak sometimes.
This is for certain: I will be making that King Cake. Multiple times, surely, until I get it close enough to Patrick’s to be good enough for Arlo’s birthday. And though I’m no deity in disguise, I hope I can do something that feels even a fraction of this kind of kind to show Jason and Patrick how grateful I am for what they did for us, in addition to how grateful I am to experience gratitude of this amplitude, a feeling which is a gift in and of itself.
I am sweeping the floor for the thirteenth time
this weekend and it strikes me
how very much this motion
is like rowing a boat,
two hands spaced strategically
on a paddle pulling fluid
across time and space
and I’m reminded of the “Canoe Camping”
course I took my first year of college
to fulfill a Kinesiology requirement
and how I was happy that my partner
for our overnight campout was a kid named Nick
because I had a crush on him for a full five minutes
until we were in the two-person canoe together
and he started talking.
That night at the campfire
someone broke out a bottle
of Goldschläger smuggled in a duffel
and after I’d retreated to my tent for the night
Nick took a few pulls too many
and ate my tomato basil soup
(he’d found it while scrounging like a rabid raccoon)
slated explicitly for lunch the following noon
cold, right out of the can, according to a witness.
I had to stare at the back of his head
from the stern seat all the next day,
hating him hungrily while scraping my oarlock
against the gunwale in the most strident way
possible, hoping his cinnamon fire hangover
was worse than the pangs I was feeling
from lack of lunch. Still, somehow,
I had to collaborate with this beast
to ensure purchase on another shore,
chagrined at the very idea that in order
to hit homeland I must cooperate
with a pirate of my provisions
because I couldn’t get there alone.
And now I am back in my kitchen, sweeping
my boat gently down the stream,
trying to travel by treading water,
this bristled oar in my hands waving
the detritus of days across the hardwood
again, again, again, and again,
keeping the floor clean and our lives afloat
as we near a destination that is both
out of sight and underfoot,
which is just like coming home.
The river will always be deep and wide
and we will forever be wending our way
with our eyes on the lowdown and dirty
sitting right there in the bow.
We are all of us rowing our boats
ashore, one broomstick stroke at a time.